“Here is a thesis, which I offer in a gleeful fit of reductionism: Modern Protestants can’t write because we have no sacramental theology.”
— Peter Leithart
This past week, Peter Leithart published a two-part series at First Things on “Why Protestants Can’t Write” (see part one and part two). With a title like that, you are sure to draw attention and create a ruckus, and that is surely the point of the title. The original title, when it was first published in Credenda/Agenda, is, “Why Evangelicals Can’t Write.” That is probably the more accurate title, as we shall see.
Today, he posted a follow-up response, “Protestants, Writing, Sacraments.” At the end of the post, he linked to his review of Lori Branch’s Freedom & Propriety. I highly recommend reading both the follow-up and the review. They will clarify the sort of Protestant that Leithart is targeting.
I have engaged in these discussions for quite some time. I can predict the initial Protestant response with pinpoint precision. What about Milton? Or, in regard to visual arts, what about Rembrandt? There is a reason why these and a few other figures are always offered. Always. It is because they are exceptions — exceptions to the rule. But, the rule is the point, not the exceptions. Moreover, we must inquire why someone like Milton is able to write in a way that the evangelicals in Leithart’s crosshairs cannot.
What Sort of Writing?
We must first recognize what Leithart means by “write.” He is not talking about the craft of writing in general. Protestants are excellent at writing theology, especially doctrinal theology. In a previous post, “The Evangelical Aesthetic,” I wrote:
As is often said, the Catholic aesthetic is visual and material; the Protestant aesthetic is verbal and aural. Even Catholic novelists — in a verbal medium — are basically imaginative (image-making) in their orientation. Tolkien is an obvious example.
In this scheme, Protestants are in fact good at writing, since it is a verbal medium. Yet, this is the medium that Leithart is engaging.
Leithart is very specific about what he means. He is saying, as I indicate above, that Catholic writers are imaginative in their narrative prose, namely fictional prose, in a way that Protestants are not. Leithart expresses this in terms of sacramental theology and not imagination per se, but I am fairly certain that the connection between the two is uncontroversial. The point is that Leithart is engaged with a particular form of writing, as well as a particular form of Protestant.
The Sacramental Writer
Let me put it briefly. The sacramental writer attends to the sign or symbol as really manifesting the divine — not merely indicating or pointing away from itself but, rather, itself operating in this capacity. Leithart explains this in the second part, by way of Flannery O’Connor. You can read it for yourself, and anyone who wants to criticize Leithart’s thesis must criticize it on this point.
Leithart believes that this is a “Zwinglian” way of understanding sacramental signs, and this is why he blames Marburg for our ills. It quickly becomes clear that Leithart is not attacking Protestantism as a whole — and he makes exceptions for “Protestants with prayer books” and “lapsed Calvinists touched with Transcendentalism,” as well as genuine exceptions like Marilynne Robinson. Typologies like this — here, “Zwinglian” — are always open for criticism in obvious ways, which is why fewer and fewer intellectuals are willing to do this sort of typological approach. That is a shame. It is why our thinking is so technical, careful, refined, and — boring.
So, Leithart is criticizing evangelicals for the most part. He is criticizing Protestants who are basically Zwinglian, which is to say, most Protestants in America and most of the global evangelical movement. Protestant charismatics are overwhelmingly Zwinglian, and that’s a large bulk of the global South. Charismatics have their favored ways of receiving the Spirit, and sacramental signs are rarely among these ways. To be clear, Leithart does not deal with the specific targets of his criticism, so I am conjecturing. It is also very likely that Leithart has large swaths of mainline Protestantism (and liberal Catholicism) in mind as well, to the extent that they inherit and perpetuate the same unimaginative and pseudo-sacramental approach to the Christian faith. Thus, he is attacking “modern Protestantism,” in both its conservative and liberal expressions. Nonetheless, it seems that conservative evangelicals are the dominant target.
More Reasons Why Protestants Can’t Write
Derek Rishmawy has posted a characteristically thoughtful response: “7 Reasons Zwingli Might Not Be the Reason Protestants Can’t Write.” This is a good post, but it is a peculiar post. It is meant to be a rejoinder of sorts to Leithart.
Derek criticizes Leithart’s “gleeful reductionism” as unhelpful, but Derek manages to supplement Leithart’s thesis with seven more reasons! You will need to read his post in order to understand what I mean. Here is part of my response in the comments:
I think this post supports and supplements Leithart’s thesis. For example, I am pretty sure that Leithart would interpret dispensational eschatology (Darby, Scofield) as an aggravated form of Zwinglian literalism and lack of sacramental imagination. And the same can be said for conversionism, with its reductionist view of the atonement and the gospel, and for cultural isolationism. It is worth noting that the original title of Leithart’s article, when it was first published in Credenda/Agenda, is, “Why Evangelicals Can’t Write” — which is a more accurate title because, as you note, his focus is not really on Protestants as a whole but “low church” evangelicals. And even where American evangelicalism has found cultural support, affluence, leisure (the basis of culture, according to Josef Pieper) in America, it has still not yielded anything significant of artistic quality. There’s a reason why all of the great Southern novelists were Catholic.
Sure, Leithart would need to do a lot more work to fully substantiate his thesis, but we must engage him at his strongest points. We must engage his conception of Christian writing as “a specific way of rendering the symbolic and real.”
I do not care if you disagree. I only care that you disagree on the real point of controversy and that you offer some credible alternative. From the Facebook responses that I’ve seen, this is sorely lacking. In fact, evangelicals have unwittingly demonstrated their own ignorance and even arrogance in some of these responses. Leithart is not pulling this from thin air. He is responding to real problems within Protestantism, as he has done for most of his career.
Derek complains that “this is exactly the sort of piece that fuels what Gregory Thornbury’s dubbed the ‘Suicide Death-Cult’ tendencies of self-flagellating, young, Evangelicals who are still in emotional recovery over the Carman tapes they liked in their youth.” I can sympathize with that concern — a lot. But sometimes evangelicals need to self-flagellate, and this is one area (among other) in need of critical self-evaluation and humility.
Image: Peter Leithart (source)